You´re the last country we expected to see (although now we´re VERY glad we did)
09.09.2012 - 22.09.2012 20 °C
When we took off on this trip, we had a handful of countries we definitely wanted to go to and a couple we thought we might end up visiting - Argentina wasn´t on either of those lists. But the health hiccup I had at the very beginning in the U.S. ended up sending us in unexpected directions. Originally we thought I could get the follow-up I needed in La Paz or Santa Cruz. After all, one of the two biggest cities in any country SHOULD have good medical facilities (even if it is Bolivia) right? But a combination of advice from people who´d lived there and the very unprofessional communication from the clinic I´d contacted had me getting uneasy by the time we started on the Salt Flat tour. The straw that broke the camel´s back was when one of the Aussies on the tour told us that a standard element of her travel insurance is that she be transported OUT of Bolivia should she need serious medical assistance. So halfway during the tour we decided NOT to go back to Uyuni in the north and on to Santa Cruz, but to leave the tour in the southern city of Tupiza along and - from there - head straight down to Buenos Aires for the one and only reason that it has one of the best medical reputations in all South America. But now that we´re here, I must say I´m almost (almost, mind you) glad they found that wonky polyp in the U.S., otherwise we would have missed this wonderful city.
Ah - Buenos Aires... how best to describe you? Your different barrios are almost like different little countries in themselves. On the one hand you have streets full of hypermodern skyscrapers, big-brand shops and lovely pavement cafes and flower stalls that look like New York or Paris on their very best days - it´s really the first South American city we´ve been in that looks like ´the West´. On the other hand, there are neighborhoods that you probably should NOT wander into on your own at night, but which - during the day - are absolutely bursting with life, spice, and authentic, energetic, rough-and-tumble Argentenian atmosphere.
Different faces of Buenos Aires
Some of them, such as San Telmo, have apparently started getting more ´gentrified´in the last years with trendy little shops and restaurants slowly moving in, but the local residents are resisting it right and left - they don´t want their neighborhood to change a BIT, even if it is for the "better"! We´ve been here 10 days now, and in between the various medical appointments have really done and seen a lot. Here, some of my biggest impressions.
Walking, walking, walking
It´s the only way to really see the city. Our very first day we did a 3-hour walking tour that took us to some of the main sights. The next day, we walked ALL the way from our hostel to the hospital - halfway across the city - for my first appointment. Oh, my aching feet! But those two excursions took us through a number of the different barrios and really got us oriented. It´s amazing how the neighborhoods can change, with all the different types of architecture, shops and parks along the way. Here you have Gucci and Prada in super-cool, antiseptic glass showcases, then old, utterly gorgeous facades with wrought iron balconies fllled with flowers that have shabby shops on the ground floor stuffed with vegetables of uncertain provenance and quality. One of the most fantastic sights is the many "pasearperros" - the professional dog walkers of Buenos Aires. Argentineans, apparently, LOVE dogs, but - the more well-off, apparently - don´t love (or don´t have the time) to walk them. So they hire people to do it. It´s an industry in itself, these guys and gals wearing thick leather belts with countless rings to which any number of leashes can be attached. They look like small, walking canine islands - it´s the most amazing sight! ! As the pasearperros go from place to place, picking up or dropping off dogs, the rest wait patiently (or, if there are Jack Russels in the bunch, NOT so patiently) outside at whatever railing they're briefly tied to.
Museums, museums, museums...
An amazing surprise and my absolute favourite was the National Museum of Fine Arts - a relatively small but absolutely outstanding national and international collection fantastically displayed against dramatically coloured walls, including more El Grecos than I´ve ever seen in one place before. For the first time, I could see and understand why he is considered great. The South American Modern Art museum, on the other hand (praised to the skies in the guidebooks) was (IMO) a big MEH!!! Sorry, but I do not find a pile of potatoes with battery wires stuck into them "Art" (even with a small "a"). Museo Fortabat - the private art collection of the richest woman in Argentena - was somewhere in between. I was surprised to see that her first name was Amalia - the same as the oldest daughter of the Dutch crown prince (and his Argentinian wife). They must have been pleased to find a name that has historic connotations in BOTH countries.
Last, but not least, we also checked out the Evita Museum. History (depending on who your source is) either deifies or demonizes Eva Peron, but it´s undisputable that she´s left an unerasable stamp on the national sensibility of this country. To this day, she holds the title - bestowed on her just months before she died at the age of 33 - of its "Spiritual Leader" I´ve seen the musical, read a number of in-depth articles (never a biography, although - after this - I´m curious to), and have now seen the museum (which definitely takes the ´Saint Evita´ viewpoint). It was located in a building which was the headquarters of the charitable foundation she set up. A great deal of it was taken up with displays of her clothes, shoes and handbags (a costume geek heaven!), but there were also a lot of video and audio snippets - some of which were from her most famous speeches - including the one in which she declined being the Vice Presidential candidate on her husband´s re-election ticket. The official reason was that she just wanted to ´support´, not ´govern´. The reality was that she knew she was in the last stages of cancer. Still, voices and their tone can reveal a lot - and hers made me really feel for her. I think she was kind of like Princess Diana. Someone who truly was concerned about the needy and disenfranchised, but who also did not hesitate to use that to further and enhance their own public image. And I can imagine her urgent need and desire to do so, considering her beginnings (which were so unpropitious even SHE felt the need to muffle them up). Because there is so little reliable, impartial, first-hand information about her, we´ll never be sure what really drove Evita, but that only makes her a more mysterious, unfathomable and - at least here - mythic figure. The same goes for Che Gueverra. There´s no museum for him, but being here and seeing so many photos, I dug into Wikipedia and other sources and read more about him than I ever have before. He´s also deified and demonized. A priveliged young man who became a doctor, and gave it up to fight against the oppression of the poor by the rich. And ended up becoming what many would call a terrorist himself. Travelling is one of the best history and sociology lessons you can get.
Art and Evita...
Argentinians know foreigners want to experience tango, so there are tons of (dinner) shows on offer, most of them wincingly expensive and (as we understood) with pretty mediocre food. Most sounded like tourist traps, but we didn´t want to get stuck in TOO big of one, so checked around available reports and reviews and settled on a quite small show. It showed the ´evolution´ of tango over the decades in five different acts, from how it started in the low-class barrios, until it took good society by storm. Very informative, and the dancers were great! Although tango, by the way, is just as much about the songs as the dance. In between the dance parts, there were some great singers too. When we were at the weekly San Telmo market, we also saw an adorable older couple who danced to the music of a couple of truly fantastic guitarists. We (still) hope one of the evenings we´re still in BA to hit a dance club which is dedicated to tango. No ´show´- just where the locals go to hit the floor.
Markets, Tango and more...
I almost jumped out of my seat the first time a goal was scored during a soccer game that was playing on the TV in a corner of our hostel. By now I have come to realize it is standard procedure for the announcer to scream "G-O-O-O-O-A-A-A-A-L-L-L-L!!!!!" for as loud and (especially) LONG as he can every time there is one! I thought the Dutch were rabid soccer fans, but they are nothing compared to Argentinians. At our hostel, we had the opportunity to get tickets to a game of Boca Junior - THE major team in the country - which has produced some of the Argentinia´s most stellar players, including Maradona. It´s roots (and stadium) are in the La Boca section of the city, which is also the toughest, roughest, and scruffiest one in Buenos Aires. Every guide book advises you, do NOT go their on your own. We were properly chaperoned - a pick-up at our hotel by a minivan with other tourists and a guide. We were dropped near a police barrier and security checkpoint that tons of people were streaming through. On the other side, our guide ushered us into what I can only call a "tourist pen" - a kind of big garage full of other gringos who were being "protected" from the great unwashed masses outside. There, we were given chorizo sandwiches (bleh) and cold beer (all included in the ticket price) and I amused myself with watching utterly drunken Aussies until it was time to head into the stadium. Once we got there, we realized we didn´t have designated seats, but just had to find space where we could squeeze ourselves in on the concrete benches (we were in the "cheap seats" - and they were PACKED) wherever we could. Soccer doesn´t usually hold my attention that much, but the game was actually pretty exciting with a lot of action. Boca scored twice (and won), but the high point was the fans. I have NEVER seen such fanatic yelling, singing, stamping, clapping and roaring at any sport event ever. Afterwards, the police kept each upper level of the stadium blocked off until the levels below had been emptied (which meant we had to wait for ages to leave). Super security!
Into the heart of Boca
Most people have heard, I think, about the Mothers of Plaza Mayo - and they are still there. Even though most of them are quite old by now, they still show up every Thursday to take at least a few symbolic turns around the plaza. For those who haven´t heard of them, these are some of the most courageous women you can probably imagine. After Evita died, Juan Peron apparently had more and more difficulty holding on to power and his efforts to do so resulted in oppressions, political kidnappings and other chaos. In the midst of it, there was increasing public support for the military to step in. This just took the country out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it resulted in an even more oppressive military dictatorship which lasted more than a decade. During it, things such as homosexuals, long hair, and groups of more than three forming in public were outlawed. In the course of that time, some 30,000 people, most of them young dissentors, were picked up - and completely disappeared. On April 30, 1977, 14 mothers of these missing people showed up on the Plaza del Mayo, pictures of their children pinned to their chests and with diapers tied on their heads, demanding to know where their children were. The police reminded them of the "three people gathering" law, and forced them to disperse. The next day they showed up again - taking care to stay apart in 4 groups of 3, and 1 group of 2. Day after day they showed up - and more people started showing up too, heartened by their example. It was the first crack of social resistance that marked the beginning of the end of the military dictatorship. I don´t think any of the missing children every turned up again. It later came out that most of them were taken out in military airplanes over the ocean and dumped in with concrete around their feet. The mother´s know, by now, that their children are dead, but they still show up once a week for a two-fold reason.
The first reason is purely symbolic: to give an ongoing testimony and reminder that, as bad and warped as politicians and democracy can be, it´s better than a military dictatorship in which NO voice of the people is allowed whatsoever. And I must say the population here has embraced that right with a vengeance. There are demonstrations here - large and small - almost every single DAY! The government, according to people we´ve spoken to, doesn´t seem to pay much attention to them - but the people still get out there and enthusiastically shout and protest against whatever they don´t agree with. The second reason is - the "mothers" are still looking for their grandchildren. Not all of the people arrested in the 70s were singles. Pregnant women and whole young families also disappeared. As heartless as the dictatorship was, they couldn´t bring themselves to murder infants and toddlers. Especially when, amongst the ruling military families, there were quite a number of couples who didn´t - or couldn´t - have children. Since sponsors set up a free DNA testing service a number of years back, open to anyone who was born during those repressive years, 104 children of "the disappeared" have been identified - the last one not even a month ago. Even this "victory", however, is a bitter-edged and morally complex one. These people, now in their late 30s and early 40s, are discovering that the people who raised them - people they surely love - are not only NOT their real parents, but were directly or indirectly, responsible for the death of their real mothers and fathers. Why do we need horror stories, I sometimes wonder, when reality can be so cruel? But the fact remains that the most heart-warming thing I have seen in my time here is the reception the mothers received when they pulled up in their little mini-bus at the plaza. There was a huge crowd waiting for them - only a small percentage of which were tourists. The rest were Argentinian, many bearing signs and flags themselves with messages such as "thank you for your courage and example". When the women exited the bus, some of them now so infirm they have to be supported by nurses, there was such a roaring and cheering and clapping, before the crowd burst whole-heartedly into some song (I could only make out that it was about "los madres") and followed them around and around the square.
Los Madres and modern-day (EVERY day!) demonstrations
Country of the constant kissing!
I think I already mentioned in one of my previous posts how physically warm and affectionate South Americans are. Watching any group of friends or family meeting or sitting next to you at a table and it seems to be almost non-stop touching, hugs and kisses. Here, it seems to extend even farther! Not that I want to dwell or report in detail on my medical experiences here, but they gave me super interesting insight into this part of the Argentinian culture in its own right. As I was in the waiting room for my very first consultation, I was craning my neck left and right watching not only the medical colleagues coming and going greeting each other with kisses, but also the patients as they were called in! "Am I supposed to kiss the doctor, do you think?", I somewhat nervously asked Gerard. "Of course not", my 'nuchtere' Dutchman answered. So although Dr. Gonzalez beamed at me when it was finally my turn and we came face to face, I only timidly offered my hand. Thankfully, I think they're used to uptight Europeans here (it's a German hospital, after all), and she didn't seem to hold it against me.
My second visit, when I met the specialist - Dr Cimmino - who was going to do the procedure, he also came barreling in like he was expecting a group hug to start the meeting, but there was a desk in between us, and I got the idea that Dr Gonzalez shot him something like a warning look. But on the day of the procedure itself, all barriers started breaking down. When Dr Gonzalez came up to where we were waiting to give me a little brief on what was going to be happening, we spontaneously greeted each other with a kind of shy little hug. Then, after I'd been taken apart and gowned and capped, the anesthegiologist burst in, grabbed me by the shoulders, and planted a big smack on my cheek. "Hola!" he said, and started rattling off in Spanish.
OK, WHAT am I signing?
I had immediate confidence in him. He was in his late 40s or so, and looked like a taller, slightly less bald version of Stanley Tucci. But I DID want to understand what he was saying and what it was he wanted me to sign. After a bit of linguistic exploration and sign language that tested the limits of his English and my Spanish, he grinned and said, "you are accepting me to put you to bed?" I gave him a high five (which cracked him up), signed, and they wheeled me in to a procedure room which - how lovely! - had big windows looking out over a garden. Dr Tucci got me IV´d up as quickly, neatly and painlessly as anyone ever has, while we chatted (or tried to) about where I'd been in South America. As he started injecting the syringe with the knock-out sedative into the IV he winked and said, "Sweet dreams"- I winked too and answered, "Hasta la vista!" He cracked up again, and shot back, "Hasta la vista, baby!!"
During my post-op check-up the next day, Dr Gonzalez, Dr Cimmino and I became firmly established kissing cousins. And I must say that such gestures of affection DO give you a feeling of friendship, intimacy and connection that I've never felt with any medical practitioners before. I can't imagine how it would be if any of them had been people that I'd rather NOT kiss on the cheek - I imagine that must be the case, sometimes. But that wasn't so as far as I was concerned - they are utterly lovely people. Perhaps more so BECAUSE we are "kissing cousins". Maybe that's the point. Gestures of affection automatically make you feel more affectionate towards the people you share them with.
Anyway, we have to wait until the lab results get back from the procedure and, having explored Buenos Aires from top to bottom, we've decided to take a short trip to Uruguay - another country that was not on either list - in between. We'll be hitting Colonia (a World Heritage city), Montevideo - the capital - and Punta del Este, an apparently very nice seaside resort, even though it's not really beach weather here yet. In the meantime, some last pics from the very friendly and lovely hostel we've been staying at - taken when we watched a soccer match (Argentinia-Brazil: MAJOR drama), and when I participated in an empañada-making class, as well as a couple from when we treated ourselves at La Calabra - THE best steak (according to locals) in all Argentenia. It was indeed an awesome meal!